An Individual Contributor Is Only Looking Out for Friday
And rightly so! How I learned to visualize and embrace this planning concept.
Years ago, I felt I was struggling to get one of my direct reports (an individual contributor) to think in a bigger way that allowed us to build a large-scale design system. My boss, at the time, told me “an IC is only looking out for Friday.”
That really hit me. (There’s more to it—I trimmed it to be dramatic.)
Her entire lesson for me was this:
“An IC is only looking out for Friday. It is your job as her manager to look out as far as the end of the month. Mine is through the next 1 to 3 quarters. And my boss’ is the end of the fiscal year.”
As a new manager, this helped me not only make sense of the hierarchy, but help put into perspective the accountability we each had and how it rolled up to the overall business objective. It also kept me from biting off more than I was asked to chew for that moment, and start breaking things down into even smaller units of work for my ICs.
How I See This Today
I’m a visual thinker, so sharing how I see this in my head to help explain it. And this is a general template that may or may not fit your organization. But, I feel the principle spirit of it still applies.
The Vice President (or department head) level is accountable for the overall business objective for that year. That objective gets broken up into quarters by the Director(s). The Managers breaks it down further by month, and the individual contributor works on it at the week level. Hence, “an IC is only looking out for Friday.”
This is not to say the goal of a business objective always takes a year to meet, or that everything fits neatly into quarter-month-week timelines. It’s more to show that I learned I can’t and shouldn’t expect an IC to think in terms of months, quarters or even the entire fiscal year. They are responsible for the work that week. They also may not have the experience to think months out, let alone how that rolls up to the other projects on other teams.
The Manager can certainly explain and share the vision for the month to an IC. And at times, this may help them in their work. Same goes that a VP is not thinking of the business objective at the granular level of the weekly work ICs do—which, collectively, can be hundreds or thousands of pieces of work. VPs likely have a number of Directors reporting to them—along with a number of business objectives—and it would be wildly inefficient to even be operating at the IC level of granularity.
How People Can Slow Themselves Down
I have been in incredibly efficient organizations before. I’ve also been in ones that are sluggish, and or have tons of rework. Looking back on it, the ones that were most efficient followed the model outlined above. There, VPs rarely ever dipped into the granularity of the work an IC was doing. ICs’ tasking was broken down to the smallest unit of work so that they could think about the details and perfect them. The Manager had the plan and worked with ICs to fit their work together into a unit. Directors grouped several units together, and so on.
This is not to say a VP can’t be a stakeholder for some work, or even be present during the demo of new work, but is more to say that their efficiency comes from the quality of the managers below them to break it up into smaller units of work, and be held accountable for it.
This takes a lot of trust, empathy, delegating, and even some intuition on the part of the VP and Directors. My personal takeaway was this: as much as I would like to have ICs thinking of how this all plays out in the end, having an IC designing at the business objective level slows them down. Just as a VP trying to manage or review hundreds or thousands of small pieces is untenable.
This is all very generalized, and really meant to be read in relative terms to each other. Sharing in this way as I found it helpful for me to put the work of and IC > Manager > Director > VP into (visual) perspective.